YanLev/Shutterstock
Source: YanLev/Shutterstock

If you're like me, you can easily sit down at the computer in front of a blank page titled “My Failures in Life” and go to town. In my case, among the many eventual pages of this document, you would find summaries of rejections from colleges, rejections from grad schools, rejections from publications, and to job applications. And that’s just the start. My son’s Little League team that I coached last year was immediately eliminated in the playoffs—my son’s basketball team, which I also coach, lost our only overtime game by one point; that stung. And more.

As an academic, this is the time of the year in which issues of rejection and failure are brought to the forefront. This is when students who have applied to graduate schools find out if they got in.

Every year, I support as many students as I can in an effort to help get them jobs and entry into high-quality graduate programs. As a professor, my job isn’t done when I grade a student’s final exam. My job includes any and all efforts to help our hard-working students get on a career path that will allow them to make a positive mark on this world. This is just as important to my job as grading a test, creating a syllabus, or lecturing on how to compute standard deviation. So when students find that they have been rejected by graduate programs, it affects me. It’s a tough season; even some of our best students get fully rejected. It’s simply that competitive.

Of course, I don’t ever want my students to give up. Ever. They are not allowed to. In 1993, the famed North Carolina State men’s basketball coach Jimmy Valvano looked a national ESPN audience in the eye and, his body riddled with cancerous tumors, said this: Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.

He may not have been a research psychologist with a Ph.D., but Valvano knew what he was saying. And when I run into failure in my life (which is, as I’ve indicated, quite often), I do my best to unleash my inner "Jimmy V."—and I advise you to do the same.

Why was Valvano right? Why should we stand up in the face of adversity? Is this really an effective behavioral strategy? Was it adaptive for our ancestors as they dealt with all kinds of threats on the pre-agrarian savanna? Heck, yes, Jimmy V. was right. And there is a lot of work in the field of psychology to support his message. Below are 5 scientifically-documented reasons to endorse a Valvano approach to all aspects of life:

  1. An overly optimistic take on oneself is adaptive. Much research in psychology (see Krueger, 1998) shows that people generally take a rosy-glassed approach in perceiving themselves—and that people who are more likely to show such self-enhancement in their self-perceptions are on a track for success in multiple domains.
  2. Having an illusion of control is adaptive. In reality, we can only control so much of what happens in our worlds. But people vary in terms of how much they tend to think they have control—regardless of whether they actually have it (see Presson & Benassi, 1996). The kicker is this: People who think they have a little more control than is actually warranted are at a dramatically reduced risk for depression. And this is a must-have evolutionary-based value. Our ancestors who continued to try at some task—partly because they thought they could control the situation—had to have been our ancestors who (at least sometimes) succeeded, because they kept at it.
  3. Think you can! Think you can! Self-efficacy (see Bandura et al., 1996) is a pretty straightforward but powerful psychological phenomenon. It’s the simple belief that you can accomplish some task. Suppose you need to unlock a rusty old door and, in front of you, I picked a key from a pile of hundreds of keys and said, "Try this one—it might work.” Well, you could try it, but you probably would be so doubtful that you might, unwittingly, not exactly give it your all. Imagine another scenario in which I give you a single key and I say, “This is definitely the key.” Well you might jiggle it and such, but you’d probably try harder than in the other condition—even if the keys were identical. This is how it works: If you think you might succeed, you try harder—and such effort often begets success. Whenever possible, shoot to foster self-efficacy in all your endeavors. It’s sort of Step 1 for success.
  4. Have an overly optimistic take on others in your life. Humans don’t live in vacuums. We live in specific social circles. We have others who comprise our primary support group—often our spouse, family, and close friends. People often extend the self-relevant biases described above to these close individuals. For instance, people tend to over-idealize their romantic partners (see Geher et al., 2005). In fact, over-idealizing one’s romantic partner is a huge predictor of relationship success and satisfaction. Give others in your life the benefit of the doubt, and put on some rosy glasses when looking at them!
  5. Life is short. Do something great. This point may not be as scientifically-based, but it’s still spot-on. Resilience (see Masten, 1989) is a set of qualities that help us fend off the adverse effects of negative outcomes such as failure and rejection. We are all going to face rejection and failure; that is part of life. Our ability to effectively combat such outcomes and bounce back is resilience—and it is how we can take failures in these short lives that we have and turn them, ultimately, into successful outcomes marked by greatness.

If you are a successful human (and if you’ve read to this point in this article, then you surely qualify), you need to look failure in the eye and rise above it. The most successful people are also often the ones who have experienced the most failure. Failure and rejection hurt, but they are not show-stoppers. They are important features of life that help us grow stronger and that help us succeed into the future. When Valvano had a body full of cancer and months left to live, what did he do? He started the Jimmy V. Fund to help raise a ton of money to help facilitate scientific cancer research. Some success story, actually.

So if you have run into some kind of failure or rejection lately, I say this to you: Foster your belief in yourself, foster your belief in close others who support you, and unleash your inner Jimmy Valvano: Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.

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